Omicron Surge in Asia Restricts Travel for Lunar New Year

The Omicron variant has dampened the plans of tens of millions of people across several Asian countries to travel during the Lunar New Year, as officials battle the pandemic for a third year.

Observed this year on Feb. 1, Lunar New Year falls just as many countries are seeing surges in coronavirus cases. Omicron is becoming the dominant variant in countries like South Korea, which expects up to 90 percent of its cases to be Omicron-related by the end of February.

Before the pandemic, as many as three billion trips were made over the holiday in China — often described as the world’s largest annual migration. People visit their hometowns or go on vacation.

Once again this year, there will be far fewer trips, with travel regulations and pressure from governments restricting the exodus.

“Large gatherings will have to wait a little longer, as the Omicron variant has forced us to maintain strict measures,” said Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, in a statement about the holidays. “We must continue to exercise social responsibility and take precautions.”

Singapore has reported a 457 percent increase in daily cases over the past two weeks, according to Our World in Data. The city state’s Ministry of Health said it expects “cases to double every two or three days.” In December, Singapore and Malaysia temporarily halted ticket sales for airplanes and buses in response to the rise of Omicron, even for those who were fully vaccinated.

Chinese citizens are under strict government surveillance, with a color code system restricting their movements and making travel difficult. The country’s “zero Covid” approach has led to lockdowns across various cities.

In January, Beijing officials reported the city’s first Omicron case and called for an immediate lockdown in one neighborhood. With the Olympics just around the corner, China has decided not to sell tickets to most domestic or international spectators.

On Sunday, Beijing reported its highest case count in 18 months, just days before the Games.

South Korea has not placed a travel ban on its citizens, but it has repeatedly urged them to refrain as much as possible from visiting relatives and going on vacation.

Although the country has fully vaccinated 85 percent of its population, according to Our World in Data, it reached a record case count of 17,532 over the long Lunar New Year weekend, which started on Saturday and will last through Wednesday.

Several countries that had put in place strict international travel restrictions will continue moving toward a gradual reopening of their tourism industries.

Vietnam has been slowly reopening to international visitors. Certain destination spots have already opened up, and the country will be fully accessible to travelers in April.

Indonesia lifted a ban on travelers from 14 countries in mid-January, allowing people from any country to visit if they quarantine upon arrival. “Learning from the surge of the Omicron variant cases in various countries, the government has made adequate preparations to deal with it,” President Joko Widodo said in a statement on Friday.

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